Russia Is Top US National Security Threat Says General Dunford; That Should Make It the Top Priority for US Diplomacy

Pictured are Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin (2nd right), Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu (left), Black Sea Fleet Commander Vice Admiral Aleksander Vitko (2nd left), and the Director of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) Alexander Bortnikov.  Putin, rejects any criticism over Russia’s actions in Ukraine or anything else. He says Russia was targeted by the West with sanctions and he had to respond with retaliatory, protective measures.

According to a July 9, 2015 Reuters article entitled, “Russia Is Top US National Security Threat: Gen. Dunford,” US Marine Corps Commandant General Joseph Dunford says Russia is at the top of the list of security concerns for the US. Dunford was speaking at his US Senate confirmation hearing to become the next US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Reuters quoted Dunford as saying, “If you want to talk about a nation that could pose an existential threat to the United States, I’d have to point to Russia. And if you look at their behavior, it is nothing short of alarming.” Relations between Russia and the West have taken a sharp turn downward since Russia’s intervention in Ukraine. Political leaders among the NATO Allies are uncertain of what Putin is trying to achieve with his actions in Ukraine, his moves in the Baltic States, positioning of Russian rocket forces near Poland, or his considerable military build-up. The Supreme Allied Commander, Europe (the military commander of NATO), US Air Force General Philip Breedlove, told a US Congressional Committee in April 2015, “We cannot fully grasp Putin’s intent.” Breedlove further stated, “What we can do is learn from his actions, and what we see suggests growing Russian capabilities, significant military modernization and an ambitious strategic intent.” NATO conducted several exercises to show Putin its intent to respond to aggression.

Sanctions from the US and Europeans have put relations between Russia and the West, built largely on economic cooperation, at considerable risk and pose a serious economic threat to Russia despite any heroic claims otherwise by Putin. Repetitive threats of further sanctions from the US and EU could prompt Putin to consider means to shift the power equation. He may eventually feel his back is against the wall and do more than put his forces on parade or use his forces covertly despite his denials of doing so. The escalating war of words between US and Russian officials is also problematic. Words of anger, mockery, hate, and aggression, do damage that can be difficult to repair. The world has witnessed the vicissitudes faced by the Obama administration in foreign policy. The administration often fails to acknowledge how dire problems really are. It tends to settle upon bromides, with a seductive kind of superficiality, to very challenging situations, which later prove to be shallow entrapments. Some resolution must be found to current problems in relations with Russia. In order to respond diplomatically to Putin, the genuine motivation for his actions must be uncovered. Formal diplomatic talks could be established between the US and EU with Russia not in an attempt to mollify him, but provide opportunities for all sides to “clear the air” on those issues and others and work together to mutually satisfy interests. Negotiations can be based on the relative strengths of the positions and capabilities of all sides. The peace that can be achieved must be the focus not how much each side can destroy through warfare. In the US and in the EU, all other elements of foreign and defense policy must serve to effectively support that diplomacy. Good use must be made of time available before situations change. The door to opportunity might remain open for a brief period. O si sic omnia! (Oh would that all had been done or said thus!)

Whenever Putin now hears NATO threaten to use force against Russia, albeit defensively, he responds with an enigmatic face. Even though NATO took steps such as maneuvers or force redeployments were taken in response to Crimea or ostensibly a perceived Russian threat to Eastern Ukraine, the Baltic States, and Poland, Putin likely expected NATO Allies to continue making steep military cuts and fail to meet their military commitments.

Putin’s Response to the West

Putin and his advisers have heard explanations from the US and EU that sanctions were a means to halt its annexation of Crimea, its activities in Ukraine, a response to the downing of Malaysian Airline Flight MH117, and as a means to push all parties to the negotiating table. Putin, however, rejects any criticism of Russia’s actions over Ukraine or anything else. He explains that the deterioration of relations with the West was “not our choice.” He has proffered. “It was not we who introduced restrictions on trade and economic activities. Rather we were the target and we had to respond with retaliatory, protective measures.”

Having been a P5+1 partner with China as well as the main Western powers that levied sanctions against it, the US, United Kingdom, France, and Germany during the nuclear negotiations with Iran, Putin and his advisers have undoubtedly learned how to more effectively handle the West on issues as Ukraine. Observing the decision making of Western powers up close on Iran, Putin can likely better predict Western responses in certain situations. Beyond what Russia gleaned from the Iran talks, Putin has looked deeply at the US and Europe, discerning many flaws, weaknesses in the transatlantic defense. He has watched it decay due to Western political leaders’ lack the will to maintain it. After the Soviet Union’s collapse, NATO members became weary of investing financial resources in a deterrent force that faced no threat. Putin tested NATO, acting unabashedly in the face of the alliance by moving against countries that are part of Russia’s “near abroad.” In 2008, Putin forced Armenia to break off its agreements with the EU, and Moldova was placed under similar pressure. That same year, Putin invaded Georgia. Russian troops still occupy the Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions. Whenever NATO threatens to use force against Russia now, albeit defensively, Putin responds with an enigmatic face. Even though maneuvers and force redeployments were made and sanctions were imposed in response to Russian moves as in Crimea or a perceived threat to Eastern Ukraine, the Baltic States, and Poland, Putin expected Allies to continue making steep military cuts and fail to meet their NATO military commitments.

Tanquam ex ungue leonem! (From the claw we may judge a lion.) Since 2011, uniformed military manpower has declined in every Western nation, but Russian military manpower has increased by 25 percent to 850,000 between 2011 and mid-2014. Russia supposedly has about 2.5 million active reservists out of a total population of 143 million. It ranks second, behind the US, on the list of countries with conventional warfighting capabilities. Expenditures on defense, and the related category of national security and law enforcement, accounts for 34 percent of Russia’s budget which is more than twice in comparison with 2010. The US only spent 18 percent, or $615 billion of its budget in 2014 on defense and international security. Explaining his concept for achieving this growth, Putin told senior military commanders and defense industry executives at a meeting in Sochi on May 12, 2015, “We can and must do for the defense industry what we did for Sochi.” Putin was referring to the $50 billion spent in to host the 2014 Winter Olympics there. He went on to state, “All questions relating to adequate resource allocation have been resolved.” Putin has a penchant to display power. Most recently it has been lurid. With its conventional forces rejuvenated, Russia is on the march again, seizing territory in albeit a piecemeal fashion. Putin has likely assessed war with Russia is the last thing US and EU political leaders want. He has seemingly gauged his moves sensing just how far he can go with them. He may believe he can later legitimize acquisitions via talks with the West.

Putin emerged from the Communist system of the Soviet Union. Not to be impolitic, but those emerging from that system often hold a view, infiltrated by pessimism, that the world is filled with dangers and potential enemies. To Putin, only naiveté could cause one to believe relations with the West would always be congenial given the previous years of geopolitical struggle. Aspects surrounding his career in the Soviet Union’s KGB certainly reinforced that perspective.

Confabulating on Putin

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Putin has been the authentic face of the Russian government. Putin restored order in his country after the internal chaos of the 1990s, reestablishing the power of the state. Putin emerged from the Communist system of the Soviet Union. Not to be impolitic, but those emerging from that system often hold a view, infiltrated by pessimism, that the world is filled with dangers and potential enemies.  To Putin,  only naiveté could cause one to believe relations with the West would always be congenial given the previous years of geopolitical struggle. Given its approach to Putin, there is every indication that many in the West believed positive relations with Russia would endure despite pushing Western demands its leaders. Putin style of management was undoubtedly shaped by his initial career as an officer from 1975 to 1991 in the Soviet Union’s Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (the Committee for State Security) known better as the KGB—the agency responsible for intelligence, counterintelligence, and internal security. He reached the rank of lieutenant colonel before retiring. However, his style was not shaped in terms of his use of KGB tradecraft. It was shaped as a result of his continued close association with a small group of men who served alongside him during his KGB career, particularly a few who served in the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) with him. They are called siloviki (power men). Finding siloviki, particularly retirees of the KGB, and the present day security service, Federal’naya sluzhba bezopasnosti Rossiyskoy Federatsi (Federal Security Service) or FSB, in high places in Russia is not unusual. At the pinnacle are men among them who came from Putin’s hometown of St. Petersburg. These men come from a community of families whose “roots” go back to the beginnings of the Communist Party and its first political police known as the Cheka. Putin’s Cheka heritage includes both a father and grandfather who served in the security service. He was raised in the Chekisty (Chekist) community, attending schools and a university Chekists’ progeny typically attended. That left an imprint on him. Putin got his start in politics at the local level in his hometown of St. Petersburg. As head of the St. Petersburg Committee for Foreign Liaison, a post he received through KGB patronage, Putin began working with a tight knit circle of Chekists.  Putin rose to deputy-mayor, but his work in St. Petersburg was halted after six years when his boss lost his bid for reelection. Yet, in two years, he rose from being an out-of-work deputy mayor to head of the FSB. A year later, Putin was the prime minister. Six months later, he was Russian Federation President.

Chekists share a view that the greatest danger to Russia comes from the West. They believe Western governments are driven to weaken Russia, create disorder, and make their country dependent of Western technologies. They feel that under former President Boris Yeltsin, the Russian leadership made the mistake of believing Russia no longer had any enemies. As heard in Putin’s public statements, Chekists consider the collapse of the Soviet Union, under Western pressure, as the worst geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th Century. Putin says that he is determined to save Russia from disintegration, and frustrate those he perceives as enemies that might weaken it. He also wants to bring the independent states of the former Soviet Union back under Moscow’s political, economic, and military (security) influence. Putin does not hesitate to let the leaders of those states know his intentions either. Although Putin managed to restore order from turmoil in Russia, many would note that he accomplished this with little regard for human and political rights. There is a significant opposition movement to Putin in Russia, lead by individuals such as the slain statesman and politician, Boris Nemtsov. Yet, Putin’s words have also resonated with many Russians. Convinced Russia is in a struggle with the US, the Economist states 81 percent of Russians see the US as a threat. The EU is also viewed as such.

When Putin began his third term as Russian Federation President, the Obama administration responded to him as if he were the neophyte, not a seasoned leader. Old ills that were part of US-Russian relations resurfaced and news ones arose. A series of deliberate public rebuffs to Putin sullied ties further. Putin’s anger metastasized. Soon enough, regular intrusions by Russian military aircraft in NATO airspace and Russian warships in NATO waters began.

The Downturn in Relations Began Well Before Ukraine

Dimitry Medvedev was Russian Federation President when Obama came to office. Obama seemed to measure all possibilities on relations with Russia on his interactions with him. So comfortable was Obama with Medvedev that he went as far as to declare a new era between the two former Cold War adversaries existed. Senior Russia analysts in the US government could have confirmed that Putin, who at the time was serving as Russia’s Prime Minister, was the real power in Moscow. Yet, that truth was given little consideration. Instead, Putin was treated by Obama as the “odd man out”. Little was done to build a relationship with him. When Putin began his third term as Russia’s president on May 7, 2012, the Obama administration responded to him as if he were a neophyte and not a seasoned national leader. Old ills that were part of US-Russian relations resurfaced, and new ones arose, to include: Putin’s decision to allow US National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden to reside in Russia; ongoing espionage efforts between Russia and the US, including the activities of Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki (Foreign Intelligence Service) or SVR officer Anna Chapman and other Russian “illegals” captured by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 2010, and the allegations of US spying on Russia revealed by Snowden and Wikileaks; and the US admonishment of Russia on human rights issues. Putin was still fuming over Operation Unified Protector, during which in 2011, multinational forces including the US, were placed under NATO command and imposed a no-fly zone and destroyed government forces loyal to then-Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi. Putin felt NATO-led forces went beyond UN Security Council Resolution 1973’s mandate by helping local forces overthrow Gaddafi. Gaddafi had been a friend of the Soviet Union and Russia. The world recognized how poor the relationship between Obama and Putin was after observing their body language during a June 17, 2013 meeting in Northern Ireland. A spate of public rebuffs to Putin sullied ties further.

Positive signals from Obama’s discussions on nuclear arms reductions with Medvedev likely gave administration officials the idea that Putin would also consider proposals on it. Putin firmly expressed disinterest, but administration officials smugly insisted that Putin agree to reductions in both nations’ nuclear arsenals. Putin then out rightly rejected their proposals. Obama administration officials were unprepared to receive Putin’s final rejection of the proposals and reacted poorly. Putin’s decision was viewed within the Obama administration as ending the president’s “signature effort to transform Russian-American relations and potentially dooming his aspirations for further nuclear arms cuts before leaving office.”   With the apparent goal of retaliating against Putin over his decision on its nuclear proposals, on August 7, 2013, the White House cancelled a September summit meeting in Moscow for Obama and Putin. It was a trite, and amateurish response. Administration’s officials explained their decision to cancel behind lightweight rhetoric regarding the effective use of the president’s time. An August 8, 2013 New York Times article quoted US Deputy National Security Adviser Benjamin J. Rhodes as stating, “We weren’t going to have a summit for the sake of appearance, and there wasn’t an agenda that was ripe.” Commenting on his rejection of the proposal, Putin was likened to l’enfant terrible. An unidentified source told for the same August 8th article stated, “We just didn’t get traction with the Russians. They were not prepared to engage seriously or immediately on what we thought was the very important agenda before us.” That source went on to state, “this decision was rooted in a much broader assessment and deeper disappointment.” Putin and his advisers were further convinced that the US and EU did not respect Russia as a power, even militarily. Aching to be taking seriously in the US public, among other reasons, Putin soon after wrote a September 11, 2013, op-ed in the New York Times entitled, “A Plea for Caution”. He challenged popular views on foreign policy and national-identity held in the US.

There were other public affronts. The next year, during preparation for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, there was a constant drum beat of doubt expressed by US security experts on the capability of the Russian security services to protect Sochi from terrorism. US officials were highly critical of security measures taken by the Russians for the Games and the level of cooperation officials from Russian security service officials showed toward counterparts from US security organizations. There were endless dalliances into clairvoyance evinced by predictions of terrorist attacks. It smacked more of fear mongering than anything else. Obama administration and other US officials knew the Winter Olympics would have been a proud occasion for Putin and the Russian people. Sochi provided Putin the chance to present his resurgent Russia in the best light possible. The Russian people would have the opportunity to tap into the power of Russia’s renewed greatness. Putin displayed great patience in the face of mordant criticisms leveled against the Games’ organization and even personal rebuffs to him. Putin achieved his objective, and Sochi was safe and secure. However, what occurred was not forgotten. Empta dolore experientia docet! (Experience teaches when bought with pain!)

By 2014, Putin’s anger toward the US as well as the Europeans metastasized. In his March 18, 2014 speech declaring Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Putin enumerated some Western actions that fostered contempt in Moscow. He mentioned: Russia’s economic collapse, which many Russians recall was worsened by destructive advice and false philanthropy of Western business and economic experts that did more to cripple their country; the expansion of NATO to include members of the Soviet Union’s own alliance, the Warsaw Pact; the erroneous Russian decision to agree to the treaty limiting conventional forces in Europe, which he refers to as the “colonial treaty”; the West’s dismissal of Russia’s interests in Serbia and elsewhere; attempts to bring Georgia and Ukraine into NATO and the EU; and, Western efforts to instruct Russia on how to conduct its affairs domestically and internationally. Soon, there were regular incursions of Russian bombers and fighters in NATO airspace and Russian warships in NATO waters.

No Immediate Military Solution

At the NATO Defense Ministers Meetings on June 24, 2015, participants decided on air, maritime, and special forces components of an enhanced 40,000 strong NATO Response Force (NRF). Ministers took measures to speed up political and military decision-making, including authority for NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander, Europe to prepare troops for action as soon as a political decision is made. Ministers approved a new concept of advance planning. They also finalized details on the six small headquarters being set up in Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Romania. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said, “They will each consist of around 40 people, and will play a key role in planning, exercises, and assisting potential reinforcement.” Ministers additionally decided to establish a new Joint Logistics Headquarters, to facilitate the rapid movement of forces when necessary.  Directly on Russia, Stoltenberg stated, “We are carefully assessing the implications of what Russia is doing, including its nuclear activities.” He added that NATO is working on how to deal with hybrid threats, including through close cooperation with the European Union. To avoid misperceptions of NATO’s actions, Stoltenberg explained, “We do not seek confrontation, and we do not want a new arms race.” He stressed, “we want to keep our countries safe… this is our job.”

However, despite promises, Allies must have the requisite political will to give meaning to those words and any plans. The reality is that US outlays on security are three times that of the other 27 partners combined, even though the US gross domestic product (GDP) is smaller than their total GDP. The disparity in burden threatens NATO’s integrity, cohesion and capability—and ultimately, both European and transatlantic security. Since Washington has decided to cut 40,000 troops from the US Army’s ranks by 2017, the US will not be able to cover any gaps in NATO’s strength without earmarking a sizeable portion of its forces primarily for that task. Although the NRF is now 40,000 strong, the political will of NATO Allies to use it to block or engage Russian forces must exist. While a Baltic state or Ukraine may face the eminent threat of a Russian attack, the NRF may only be poised for “sitzkrieg”, taking no aggressive action and making no effort to even deter potential Russian action. If instead of a hybrid attack, Putin ordered a Russian force, overwhelming in size and power to the NRF, to attack a target, it might be futile for the NRF to try to halt it, even with the maximum amount of pre-positioned weapon systems and ordinance available. The NRF might try to survive against the Russian leviathan until more NATO forces arrived to reinforce it and ideally expel Russia from the country under attack. However, Russia would not make reaching the NRF easy. A Normandy style landing to reinforce the NRF would hardly be possible. NATO air power might be able to stave off the Russian force, but air, land, and sea elements could mass from bases in Russia and use powerful conventional weapons to destroy forces engaged and reinforcements.

The path to the repair of US-Russian relations perhaps can be created by Kerry and Lavrov. Both men have the confidence of their respective presidents. Both have a strong interest in improving ties. Indications are that they have an ongoing dialogue on a variety of issues and have formed a good relationship. The US and the EU must continue work to directly with Russia, not shun it, to forge better ties and tackle hard issues.

The Way Forward

This is not greatcharlie’s first descant on Putin. Unlike other handschuhschneeballwerfer who have scrutinized Putin from a safe distance, the intent here is not to abuse. The goal has been to objectively examine thinking behind Putin’s actions to construct ways to engage with him. If what Putin says is true, and his continued aggressive moves have been spurred by Western responses, there may be room for the resolution of this dispute. Negotiating with Putin certainly would not be an indication of timidity, fear, or duplicity. Indeed, when speaking to Putin, the US and EU must demand respect for their positions and the rights of sovereign states. However, the views and rights of Russia must also be equally acknowledged and respected. Equity and some degree of equanimity among all sides to any talks must be promoted. There must be the will to act fairly and justly toward each other, to include an immediate cessation of hostile acts. That would mean halting Russian intrusions into NATO airspace, flyovers and buzzing by military jets, interceptions at sea and other harassing actions in NATO waters. Further deployments of NATO land forces must be paused. Negotiating requires setting aside anger over what has transpired, but does not obviate the need to discern one another’s actions to avoid deceit or trickery.

Some European leaders have made contact with Putin and tried to resolve some issues with him, but they have had little success. There have been intermittent congenial contacts between Obama and Putin. For example, on July 4, 2015, Putin called Obama to mark Independence Day and express his confidence in US-Russia relations. On June 25, 2015, Putin called Obama reportedly to discuss the P5+1 nuclear negotiations with Iran, but Obama also voiced concern over Russia’s support for separatists operating in eastern Ukraine. On February 10, 2015, Obama called Putin to urge him to accept a diplomatic peace plan for Ukraine presented by France and Germany in Belarus. Nevertheless, a more substantial contact between the US and Russia occurred on May 12, 2015 when US Secretary of State John Kerry held four hours of talks with Putin in addition to four hours talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at the Black Sea resort of Sochi.  In what Kerry characterized as a “frank meeting” with Putin, the Russian president gave detailed explanations of Russia’s positions. Their talks covered Iran, Syria, Libya, and Yemen. The eight hours of talks were a welcome development. It was Kerry’s first visit to Russia since the Ukraine crisis began in early 2014. Kerry stated on Twitter, “it was important to keep the lines of communication open between the US and Russia as we address important global issues such as Syria and Iran.” Lavrov said the talks helped Russia and the US improve mutual understanding.  Perhaps a path to repairing relations can be created by Kerry and Lavrov. There is no intrinsic guarantee diplomacy will work. However, both men have the confidence of their respective presidents. Both have a strong interest in improving US-Russia relations, and Russia’s overall relationship with the West. Indications are that they have an ongoing dialogue on a variety of issues and have also formed a good relationship. The US and the EU must continue work to directly with Russia, not shun it, to forge better ties and tackle hard issues.

Russia Tells Iraq It’s “Ready” to Support Fight Against ISIS; But Russia Must Take “Direct Action” in Iraq and Syria for the Sake of Its Own Security

Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin greets members of Directorate “A” of the FSB Special Purpose Center (Alpha Group). Russia has pledged to support Iraq and Syria in the fight against ISIS and other Islamic militant groups. However, the threat to Russian security posed by Russian citizens in those groups makes action by Putin in those countries imperative.

According to a September 26, 2014 NBCNews.com report entitled, “Russia Tells Iraq It’s ‘Ready’ to Support Fight Against ISIS”, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov made the pledge to Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York that Russia would help support Iraqi in the fight against ISIS. The Russian Foreign Ministry stated through the Itar-Tass state-run news agency that “During the meeting, Lavrov confirmed Russia’s support for Iraq’s independence, territory integrity, and sovereignty.” The Russian Foreign Ministry further stated “Moscow is ready to continue supporting Iraq in its efforts in fighting the terrorist threat, and, first of all, the one from the Islamic State.” On September 19th, Ilya Rogachev, head of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Department for New Challenges and Threats, told the Interfax news agency that Russia still declines to participate in the US-led effort against Islamic militant groups in Iraq or Syria. However, Russia pledges to continue its aid to Iraq, Syria, and other nations that are fighting terrorists. Indeed, in the form of a sillitude he explained, “The anti-ISIL [Islamic State of Iraq in the Levant used interchangeably with the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS)] coalition is not a club party—we do not expect any invitations and we are not going to buy tickets.” Apparently, the Russian government has not amended its position even though the first round of US-led airstrikes on Islamic militant groups that began on September 23rd obviated its contention that the air strikes would be used as a pretext to attack the armed forces or any other elements of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The air strikes actually hit a range of target including leaders, command and control centers, communications facilities, training camps, and supply depots of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, the Al-Qaeda linked Khorasan Group, and its parent organization, the Al-Nusra Front. While the US executed the majority of the strikes from bombers, fighters, cruise missiles, and drones, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bahrain, and Qatar in the second and third wave of attacks in the strike formation and through reconnaissance flights. The US began air strikes against ISIS in Iraq on August 8th.

The Khorasan Group, a collection of seasoned Al-Qaeda operatives, that the West feels poses a direct threat to targets in Europe and the US, should be of particular interest to Russia. Its members include several fighters from Chechnya, as well as Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen are included among its members. Khorasan’s leader, Muhsin al-Fadhli, fought against Russian forces in Chechnya and was trained there in the use of firearms, anti-aircraft weapons, and explosive.

Since the initial days of the Syrian conflict, Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin made it clear that he had no plans to intervene on the ground in Syria with Russian forces. At the same time, he made it clear last year that he was following the movement of Russians and Europeans to Syria very closely, and was concerned about their capabilities and possibilities for action against Russia. Surely, the conscience of the Russian people has been struck while watching the Islamic militants move through Syria as well as Iraq. Some may recall the ruthlessness of Nazi forces in the rear areas as they moved through Russia during World War II. Unlike some Western countries, Putin has not been compelled to respond with force to the anguish and outrage of Russian citizens, after witnessing a public execution of a Russian citizen by extremist Islamic militants in Syria or Iraq. Putin wants Russia to look strong, but sitting on the sidelines and relying on the US to manage the entire situation does not allow Russia to look strong. Interestingly, standing aside practically amounts to a conceit that US leadership and support for countries, militarily, financially, or politically can ensure positive things are accomplished internationally, and that the importance of the US is unmatched on the world stage. That is precisely the perspective of the US that Putin has tried so hard to knock down in speeches and published statements. It is also a gamble. ISIS, the Al-Nusra Front, and its off-shoot, Khorasan pose a genuine threat to the Russian homeland. They have declared that. Only force will have a sustained impact and strong educational effect on these groups. Some of Putin’s advisers may counsel that using force in Iraq and Syria would prove ineffective and pointless. Others may reject the idea fearing Western condemnation and retribution over unilateral intervention by Russia. Yet, if a search and destroy operation by Russian military or other security organizations against Russian elements in Islamic militant groups in Iraq and Syria will make Russia more secure, it should be undertaken. Virtus tentamine gaudet! (Strength welcomes the challenge!) 

Russia and Islamic Militant Groups

Putin has been continuously engaged in an effective fight against Islamic militant groups in Russia. Counter-terrorism has been a key aspect of Russia’s national security policy for many years due in great part to longstanding security problems the government has faced from the Islamic insurgency near the Caucasus Mountains. The insurgency, organized into a loose alliance of rebel groups known as Imarat Kavkaz (Caucasus Emirate), has been simmering more than a decade after it drove separatists from power in the North Caucasus province of Chechnya during Putin’s first term. They seek to carve an Islamic state out known as the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria from a swath of southern Russia. That group posed the greatest threat to the Olympic Games in Sochi.

The possibility that Russian fighters from these groups that have fought in Iraq and Syria may return home to engage in terrorist activities remains one of Putin’s greatest concerns. Back in June 21, 2013, at a conference in St. Petersburg, Russia, Putin made the claim that 600 Russians and Europeans were within the Syrian opposition fighters’ ranks. While the US and European intelligence services expressed concern over the viability of vetting Syrian opposition fighters to discover who among them are Islamic militants, the Russian intelligence service apparently already possessed files on the identities of a considerable number of Syrian opposition fighters. The London-based International Centre for the Study of Radicalization estimates that the number of Russian fighters in Islamic militant groups in Iraq and Syria, including those in the field now and those that have returned home, is around 800. Putin has not provided any new estimates publicly. 

In his September 11, 2013 New York Times Op-Ed, Putin discussed the danger posed to international peace and security by Islamic militant groups in Syria. Putin explained, “There are few champions of democracy in Syria. But there are more than enough Qaeda fighters and extremists of all stripes battling the government. The United States State Department has designated Al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, fighting with the opposition, as terrorist organizations. This internal conflict, fueled by foreign weapons supplied to the opposition, is one of the bloodiest in the world. Mercenaries from Arab countries fighting there, and hundreds of militants from Western countries and even Russia, are an issue of our deep concern. Might they not return to our countries with experience acquired in Syria? After all, after fighting in Libya, extremists moved on to Mali. This threatens us all.”

Taking Action

Assad and Abadi would most likely give their consent for Russia to conduct operations in their countries and provide Russia valuable support in its efforts. Finding Russian citizens in Iraq and Syria among reportedly over 30,000 fighters of ISIS may be akin to finding a needle in a haystack. Yet again, the potential benefit of thwarting potential attacks in Russia by extremists Islamic militants underscores the efficacy of such an undertaking. Given the degree of difficulty involved, Russia should use special forces units from the Federal’naya sluzhba bezopasnosti Rossiyskoy Federatsi (Federal Security Service) or FSB, Directorate “A” of the FSB Special Purpose Center (Alpha Group) and Directorate V of the FSB Special Purpose Center (Vympel) groups. Russia could also employ Zaslon (Barrier), a special services group of the Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki (Foreign Intelligence Service) or SVR. Of the many special service groups established in Russia, Alpha Group and Vympel are the most well-known and respected. Alpha Group, an elite stand alone sub unit of Russia’s special services, is a dedicated counter-terrorism task force of the FSB. It primarily prevents and responds to violent acts in public transportation and buildings. Vympel is officially tasked with protecting Russia’s strategic installations, however it is also available for extended police duties, paramilitary applications, and covert operations in Russia or abroad. The profile and capabilities of both units have increased, and they have taken over and consolidated roles and personnel from other organizations. Over many years, Alpha Group has acquired a reputation for using ruthless methods in response to terrorist acts. Zaslon has not been publicly recognized by the Russian government. Zaslon personnel are said to be former spetsnaz troops and serve under the sole command of Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) headquarters in Yasenevo, on the outskirts of Moscow. In his book Russian Security and Paramilitary Forces Since 1991 (Osprey, 2013), Mark Galeotti, of NYU’s Center for Global Affairs, explains that Zaslon has been linked with everything from assassinations abroad to gathering up documents and technology that the Russian government did not want the US to seize when Baghdad fell. In Syria, Galeotti suspects Zaslon may be providing additional support for Russian military and diplomatic personnel, and is likely already earmarked to extract people, documents, or technologies Russia would not want to share if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime began to collapse.

Air strikes should continue to disperse ISIS fighters as they try to avoid certain death from US bombs and cruise missiles. Perhaps operating as mixed “combined special groups” (svodnye spetsialnye gruppy (mixed special groups) or SSGs, Russian special operations forces could go into ISIS and Al-Nusra Front controlled areas and kill Russian elements or when the opportunity presents itself, collect prisoners. If ordered by Putin to present a plan for such an operation, senior Russian special services’ planners will more than likely produce something that displays a high level of acumen and creativity, utilizing advanced technologies in a manner that neither analysts nor the potential opponent could foresee. In Syria, for example, Russia special services’ efforts might entail some of the following steps. Russian special services should exploit all of its intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities to assist in locating rouge Russian elements on the ground in Syria. FSB and other Russian intelligence and security services apparently already possessed files on the identities of Russians who have traveled to Syria. Support from FSB operating in areas of Russia from which the suspected nationals originate will also support Alpha Group, Vympel, and Zaslon operations. With assistance from the Syrian military intelligence services, Mukhabarat, Russian special services could interact with Syrian citizens to collect granular information on the Islamic militant groups including the size of specific units, the locations of its fighters, the backgrounds of individual fighters and commanders, unit capabilities, and its combat and nonlethal resources. Russian special services may benefit from liasing with elements of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Quds Force. From that work, an effective operational plan can be developed. Russian special reconnaissance and electronic surveillance means would be used to monitor the locations, daily movements, and activities of the hostile Islamic militant groups. Leaders, arms, supply lines and depots, and financial support would be targeted. All entry points of Islamic militants could be identified and placed under special reconnaissance and electronic surveillance. Penetrating the Islamic militant groups, if Russia’s SVR has not already done so, would unlikely be helpful and would place any assets engaged in that effort at risk, especially once direct action is taken against those groups. All of that would be done while trying not to cross paths with US-led air assets.

Eventual strikes against Russian targets in the Islamic militant groups must be executed swiftly and covertly. Retired US General Stanley McChrystal, former commander of the US Joint Special Operations Command, has offered hints on how to exploit situational awareness which were summarized in the January 7, 2014 greatcharlie.com post entitled, “Obama, Putin discuss Olympics Security in Call; Putin Has Got It Covered and He Will Keep His Promise to the Terrorists, Too!” When striking at a terrorist group’s network, the goal is to paralyze its nervous system. Hitting it intermittently, or every other night, allows the opponent to become stronger, having become accustomed to resurrecting itself. However, McChrystal explains that if you strike at enough targets simultaneously, taking down key leaders, the group will be thrown into chaos and confusion and have a difficult time “regenerating.” That will allow for decisive effects.

Units also can be better utilized as a result of excellent situational awareness. As McChrystal explained “Traditionally, if we did a raid and we thought we were going to need 20 commandos, to actually be on the target, we might take 120, because we had to put security around the site to protect it from enemy reinforcements, and we might have to put a support section and a command and control section there because you need all those things to account for the unexpected. But when you have very good situational awareness and good communications, you only send the 20, because your security comes from being able to see, and then you can maneuver forces if you need them. So suddenly, the 120 commandos aren’t doing one raid; their doing six raids, simultaneously, and you start to get the ability to do 300 raids a month.”

To speed the process and achieve a high level of success, the Russians could adapt a form of “find, fix, finish, exploit, and analyze” (F3EA) developed by McChrystal. Under the concept, security forces would understand who or what is a target, locate it, capture or kill it, take what intelligence one can from people and documents, analyze that, then go back out execute the same cycle again. If Russian security services want to act at a speed as fast as US special operators in Iraq under McChrystal ‘s command, decision-making would need to be de-centralized because of the high number of raids. Subordinate elements must be allowed to operate quickly. It is very likely that FSB has been using sophisticated technical means to monitor the movements and activities of individuals and groups, likely to engage in terrorist acts, has been on-going. Such surveillance efforts could also be used to develop leads for the operation.

Assessment

On September 11, 2014, US Secretary of State John Kerry stated on a Voice of America radio broadcast that the administration of US President Barack Obama was disappointed by Russia’s initial reaction to the president’s speech on ISIS, which indicated the group represented a direct threat to Russia itself. Kerry explained in his view Russia must join the international fight against ISIS. Prompting by the Obama administration will unlikely cause Putin change his position and join the multinational effort against Islamic militants groups in Iraq and Syria. Indeed, it would more likely cause him to turn away from it. Yet, clear headed, practical choices must be made on Iraq and Syria in the Kremlin. As a result of US-led air strikes, there are opportunities being created for Russia in Iraq and Syria to enhance its security. Putin, his military commanders, and senior security officials know the capabilities of specific individuals and units in Russia, the effectiveness of their weapons systems, and what the real possibility for success of any given operation would be. They must also recognize the real possibility for success in enhancing Russia’s security if Russian special services acted in Iraq and Syria against Russian targets.

Of course, if Putin targeted Russian members of Islamic militant groups in Iraq and Syria, he would be contributing immensely to the international effort against those groups. Indeed, in addition to the Chechen members of Khorasan, a number of the senior leaders of ISIS are Chechen. An ethnic Chechen named Omar al-Shishani is one of ISIS’ most prominent commanders and at one point was the face of the group. Putin demands that Russia should be recognized as a world power, but Russia also must act in a manner consistent with that title. While he has shown a willingness to intervene in the former Soviet republics bordering Russia, Putin has certainly not had Russian forces gallivanting outside of its region, attempting to secure Russian interests. Taking action in Iraq and Syria as proposed here would be more about establishing Russia’s security than posturing. Yet, as result of the action, Putin would demonstrate not only to the Russian people, but to the world, he is a leader who is able to respond effectively to security issues. Putin would be able to show the Russian people and the world, that Russia is a global power.

“A Plea for Caution” One Year Later; The New York Times Op-Ed That Revealed Much about Putin

In his September 2013 New York Times op-ed, Russian President Vladimir Putin did not suggest any real steps to create opportunities for international cooperation or greater peace and security. He seemingly wanted to stir mistrust worldwide toward US efforts in foreign affairs. It would be disingenuous for US President Barack Obama’s administration to deny its behavior toward Putin likely influenced his decision to write it.

In a September 11, 2013 New York Times op-ed, Russian President Vladimir Putin provided a commentary on US-Russian relations that appeared to be a rebuttal to US President Barack Obama’s August 10, 2013 speech on the possible US military response to the chemical use by the President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. Putin’s objective with the op-ed was to reach the US public through the back channel of the news media. That was made clear when he stated, “Recent events surrounding Syria have prompted me to speak directly to the American people and their political leaders. It is important to do so at a time of insufficient communication between our societies.” Yet, Putin failed to realize that while he sought to promote Russia’s positions and arguments in the media, attempting to cope with policy analysts and popular pundits, hostile to his statements, on their “home court”, would be a mistake. Global media is still dominated by the West. Moreover, among those people interested in foreign and defense policy in the West and worldwide, very few would ever take the position that Russia was equal imilitarily, economically, or politically to the US and its Western partners. Far more people worldwide might accept negative perspectives of Russia given its human rights and civil rights history, and the authoritarian nature of the Soviet Union from which it had emerged. Changing such perceptions of Russia would be difficult to accomplish with one op-ed.

What made the op-ed even less likely to receive approval was the manner in which Putin presented his facts and arguments. He does not present a discussion based on Russia’s genuine concerns about the impact of military action. Putin displayed more tack than tact in his commentary. There was no romantic fuzziness in his words. There is no soft spot. It is not some lush, soupy appeal.  The op-ed lacks the moral eloquence of Obama’s speeches. Manifested in the text, however, was the fact that Putin is tough and has no time to be a sentimentalist. Putin was well-aware that he was communicating with citizens of an, albeit, adversarial government. Despite his best intentions, his recognition of the fact that he is not the best friend of the US public–and he likely does not care to be–managed to infiltrate his statements.

Putin accomplished very little with the op-ed. Since the time it was published, the atmosphere in international affairs has not improved, mutual trust has not been strengthened, and US-Russian relations have worsened. Putin has made major moves in Ukraine contrary to US wishes, and he has warned the West that Russia still has nuclear arms. If anything, his op-ed serves as a marker, indicating a genuine downturn in US-Russian relations had occurred. A look at events surrounding his decision to publish the commentary sheds light on how US-Russia relations fell to current levels, but also  seems to provide hope that a constructive dialogue between Obama and Putin could still develop.

Background: Putin and the US

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the authentic face of the Russian government has been Russian President Vladimir Putin. Putin restored order in Russia after the internal chaos of the 1990s, reestablishing the power of the state. Many would note the record shows he accomplished this with little regard for human and political rights. Putin is conscientious about his work, and has become quite experienced in governance and wielding national power. His style of management is undoubtedly shaped by his initial career as an officer in the Soviet Union’s Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (the Committee for State Security) known better as the KGB—the agency responsible for intelligence, counterintelligence, and internal security. He reached the rank of lieutenant colonel before retiring. Putin has been advised and assisted by a small group of men who served alongside him during his KGB career. These men are known as siloviki (power men). Finding siloviki, particularly retirees of the KGB, and the present day security service, Federal’naya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti Rossiyskoy Federatsi (Federal Security Service) or FSB, in high places in Russia is not unusual. A quarter of Russia’s senior bureaucrats, particularly in the armed forces and the security services, are siloviki. At the pinnacle are men who came from Putin’s hometown of St. Petersburg. The “roots” of the families those men come from go back to the beginnings of the Communist Party and its first political police known as the Cheka. Putin’s Cheka heritage includes both a father and grandfather who served in the security service. Putin attended the schools and auniversity Chekisty (Chekist) progeny typically attended.

The Chekists share a view that the greatest danger to Russia comes from the West. They believe Western governments are driven to weaken their homeland, create disorder, and make it dependent of Western technologies. They feel that under former President Boris Yeltsin, the Russian leadership made the mistake of believing Russia no longer had any enemies. The Chekists are resentful of the West’s success over the Soviet Union in the Cold War. As Putin himself has publicly expressed, the Chekist consider the collapse of the Soviet Union, under Western pressure, as the worst geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th Century. That loss did not mean a loss of dignity or the will to act. Anti-Western sentiment became so strong that it has created a siege mentality among the Chekists. In his March 18, 2014 speech declaring Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Putin spoke not only as the voice of Russia, but the voice of the Chekists. He enumerated some of the actions taken by the West that have fostered contempt in Moscow. He mentioned: Russia’s economic collapse, which many Russians recall was worsened by destructive advice from Western business and economic experts that did more to cripple their country; the expansion of NATO to include members of the Soviet Union’s own alliance, the Warsaw Pact; the erroneous Russian decision to agree to the treaty limiting conventional forces in Europe, which he refers to as the “colonial treaty”; the West’s dismissal of Russia’s interests in Serbia and elsewhere; attempts to bring Georgia and Ukraine into NATO and the EU; and, Western efforts to instruct Russia on how to conduct its affairs domestically and internationally. Putin is determined to save Russia from disintegration, and frustrate those he perceives as enemies that might weaken it. He will not be satisfied until Russia’s global power and influence are restored and the independent states of the former Soviet Union are brought back under Moscow’s political, economic, and military (security) influence.

Even prior to the op-ed’s publishing, the downward spiral of Russia’s relations with the Obama administration was evinced  by: Putin’s decision to allow National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden to reside in Russia; ongoing espionage efforts between Russia and the US, including the activities of Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki (Foreign Intelligence Service) or SVR officer Anna Chapman and other Russian “illegals” captured by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 2010; counter allegations of US spying on Russia revealed by Snowden and Wikileaks; and the US admonishment of Russia on human rights issues. Despite these and other negative connections, the White House sent Putin proposals on a variety of issues, some in which he had already expressed disinterest. They insisted that he agree to reductions that would be made in both nations’ nuclear arsenals.

Putin rejected the nuclear arms proposals due mainly to his concerns over the efficacy of taking such an audacious step. To him, the proposals called for staggering reductions. He views nuclear weapons as a means to assure Russia’s survival. It is unlikely that a Chekist would ever reduce Russia’s nuclear arsenal to a level demanded by the White House. Perhaps positive signals from Obama’s discussions on nuclear arms reductions with the erstwhile Russian President Dmitry Medvedev gave administration officials and advisers the idea that Putin would follow-up by accepting proposals on it. Obama felt he had a strong relationship with Medvedev. Obama seemed to measure all possibilities on relations with Russia on his interactions with him. So comfortable was Obama with Medvedev that he went as far as to declare a new era between the two former Cold War adversaries existed. There were more than enough senior Russia analysts in the US government who could have confirmed Putin, who at the time was serving as Russia’s Prime Minister, was the real power in Moscow. However, Obama administration officials and advisers did not appear to give any deep consideration to this matter. Since Medvedev was Russia’s president, Obama saw him as the authority with whom he needed to be concerned. He treated Putin as “the other guy.” Obama did little to build a positive relationship with him. When he returned to the Russian presidency for a third term, what Obama knew about him was mostly in the abstract.

Summit Cancellation 2013: The Catalyst

Obama administration officials and advisers were clearly unprepared to hear or accept Putin’s final rejection of their nuclear arms reduction proposals and reacted poorly to it. They seemed driven to achieve objectives for their president without consideration of the efficacy of their approach. Whether they even thought Putin’s concerns over nuclear arms reduction proposals were genuine is not clear. However, Putin’s decision was viewed within the Obama administration as ending their president’s “signature effort to transform Russian-American relations and potentially dooming his aspirations for further nuclear arms cuts before leaving office.”   With the apparent goal of retaliating against Putin over his refusal to accept its nuclear proposals, on August 7, 2013, Obama cancelled a Moscow summit meeting with Putin set for September. It was an amateurish and dangerous response by the administration to Putin. Yet, the decision meant much more than blocking the meeting. For Putin, the summit with the US president would be an important part of his effort to show that under his leadership, Russia has returned to the world stage as a global power. As an outcome of the actual talks with Obama, Putin likely hoped to demonstrate that he is a strong leader who is able to respond effectively to the US on security issues. During the event in Moscow, Putin would also receive the chance to present his resurgent Russia in the best light possible. Obama administration officials and advisers knew the summit meeting would have been a proud occasion for Putin and the Russian people. However, they were out to prove that it was in control of the situation. They sought to bring to light what they believed was the reliance of Russian leaders on US standing and capabilities to elevate a country that was practically an economic basket case and a shadow of its former self as a military power. Boiled down, they felt Russia needed the US, but the US did not need Russia. So, they scrapped the summit. Publicly, Obama administration’s officials and advisers made things worse by publicly explaining that the meeting was cancelled because was not seen as an effective use of the president’s time. An August 8, 2013 New York Times article quoted US Deputy National Security Adviser Benjamin Rhodes as stating, “We weren’t going to have a summit for the sake of appearance, and there wasn’t an agenda that was ripe.” Officials and advisers tossed in comments about Putin’s rejection of the proposal. An unidentified source for the same August 8th article stated, “We just didn’t get traction with the Russians. They were not prepared to engage seriously or immediately on what we thought was the very important agenda before us.” That source went on to state, “this decision was rooted in a much broader assessment and deeper disappointment.” Yet, despite these thinly veiled excuses, it was generally understood that the cancellation appeared was a consequence of Putin’s refusal to consider the proposals for extreme nuclear reductions. From it, came seasons of disappointment. Memores acti prudentes future! (Mindful of what has been done, aware of what must be!)

The Op-Ed

By cancelling the summit, Obama administration officials and advisers played into the worst anti-Western strain of Chekist thought. Putin saw the US decision as a form of rejection, a personal affront, and an effort to humiliate him. In Moscow, the anger, bitterness, and hostility that grew in Putin over the cancellation, along with a lot of other things, was likely palpable. Putin had his own set of options. As Obama’s approval ratings on foreign policy had dropped precipitously during the year to a bit less than 39.8 percent by the end of August, Putin may have perceived that he had a shot of reaching a disappointed US public with a special message.  The Russian Federation government had a contract with the Ketchum public relations firm that included placing favorable news items about Russia in US newsmedia outlets. Putin used the firm to place his op-ed in the New York Times. In writing his editorial, Putin, in part, seemed to be utilizing a bit of old KGB tradecraft in writing the piece. (Tradecraft refers generally to skills used in clandestine service to include efforts to manipulate opponents.) Much of what he proffered was a distorted view of circumstances.

Putin began by offering a discussion of certain truths about the US-Russian relations as allies during World War II and adversaries during the Cold War. He recounts that the veto power given the Permanent Five Members of the UN Security Council was established to create consensus on issues of peace and war. He explained that if states were to bypass the UN Security Council and take military action without authorization, as the Obama administration indicated it was prepared to do in August 2013, that UN’s relevance would be placed in jeopardy. As a result the UN would suffer the fate of the League of Nations. However, in further discussion of the UN, Putin engages in something akin to introjection, claiming qualities typically identified with, and exemplified by, the US. Having been successful in constructing a peaceful solution on Syria’s chemical weapons issue, Putin portrays Russia as a beacon of light in international affairs, and promoter of transnationalism, multilateral solutions, and the maintenance of international peace and security. Putin explained, “From the outset, Russia has advocated peaceful dialogue enabling Syrians to develop a compromise plan for their own future. We are not protecting the Syrian government, but international law. We need to use the United Nations Security Council and believe that preserving law and order in today’s complex and turbulent world is one of the few ways to keep international relations from sliding into chaos.” While he should be commended for expressing these sentiments, it has actually been the US, particularly the Obama administration, which, for the most part, has shown great reverence for international law. Obama, himself, would undoubtedly prefer to solve problems at the diplomatic table using reason and logic, due process, and rule of law. Putin, on the other hand, has what former US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates called “a zero-sum worldview.” Contrary to Obama’s belief in the importance of win-win relationships among nations, Putin sees all transactions as win-lose; if one party benefits, the other must lose. Gaining and retaining power is Putin’s goal.

Putin goes on to explain, “The law is still the law, and we must follow it whether we like it or not. Under current international law, force is permitted only in self-defense or by the decision of the Security Council. Anything else is unacceptable under the United Nations Charter and would constitute an act of aggression.” Here, Putin provides a veiled reference to the Operation Unified Protector, when multinational forces under NATO command imposed a no-fly zone and destroyed government forces loyal to then-Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi under UN Security Council Resolution 1973. (The military operation to enforce the UN Security Council Resolution was initially led by the US under Operation Odyssey Dawn.) In Putin’s view, Western-led forces went beyond their mandate to aid anti-Gaddafi forces, and their actions led to his overthrow. Gaddafi had been a friend of the Soviet Union and Russia. Despite the fact that the action against him was taken under a UN Security Council resolution, to Putin, it represented one more instance of the West trampling on Russia’s interests. However, looking at Russia’s actions, Putin was not in a position to admonish anyone about international law and the use of force. In 2008, Putin invaded Georgia, and Russian troops still occupy the Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions. He forced Armenia to break off its agreements with the EU, and Moldova is under similar pressure. In November 2013, using economic influence and political power, he drove then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to abort an agreement Ukraine had with the EU that would have pulled it toward the West. Once the Ukrainian Parliament removed Yanukovych, Putin grabbed Crimea.

In appraising the use of force by the US, Putin engages in a type of projection, imputing some of the dominant traits of his own handling of foreign policy on the Obama administration. He goes as far as to blame the US for efforts by some nations to acquire nuclear weapons. Putin explains: “It is alarming that military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries has become commonplace for the United States. Is it in America’s long-term interest? I doubt it. Millions around the world increasingly see America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force, cobbling coalitions together under the slogan “you’re either with us or against us.” The truth is that Obama has been averse to taking military action, contrary to former US President George W. Bush who was perceived as having the US take pre-emptive military action at the slightest whiff of aggression. Obama’s policy of restraint matches the public mood. Developing proposals for military action has been very difficult for administration officials and advisers.  In situations where the use of force is almost absolutely necessary, officials and advisers have presented options for action that are lightweight, very small in scale and calibrated precisely. Putin’s discussion of Obama as being interventionist is shear fantasy.   While obama has been involved in situations worldwide as a leader on the internation stage, its ill-advised action in Libya was its only authentic intervention. Note that it is Putin who now appears poised to move further into Ukraine.

Even if a US audience was not receptive to his message, Putin likely assumed the hyperbole in his commentary would serve to impress many people in other countries who are ill-disposed toward the US and its policies. appreciative of his efforts to admonish it. Undoutedly, his words were likely captivating and satisfying enough for those who choose not to look deeply and those who choose simple answers. Many realities are erased and the past is written off. He then writes on the past a new story, a substitute for reality. The op-ed seemed to be “sabotaged” by his comments concerning “American exceptionalism” that was rejected and much derided within all circles in the US; and, by his discouraging words concerning US operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. If someone claiming to be a Chekist were ever to offer encouraging words about the spirit of US public or US operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, he would most likely be an imposter! Creating even more discord, Putin explained that US action could place multilateral efforts on Iran and Israel-Palestine at risk.

The one part of Putin’s op-ed deserving real consideration was his discussion of the danger posed to international peace and security by Islamic militant groups in Syria. Putin succinctly analyzes the emerging threat. He reported, “There are few champions of democracy in Syria. But there are more than enough Qaeda fighters and extremists of all stripes battling the government. The United States State Department has designated Al Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, fighting with the opposition, as terrorist organizations. This internal conflict, fueled by foreign weapons supplied to the opposition, is one of the bloodiest in the world. Mercenaries from Arab countries fighting there, and hundreds of militants from Western countries and even Russia, are an issue of our deep concern. Might they not return to our countries with experience acquired in Syria? After all, after fighting in Libya, extremists moved on to Mali. This threatens us all.” Putin again seemed to be using skills acquired during his KGB days to develop a strong report on the emerging threat of Islamic militant groups such as Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS). Still, he also seemed to be providing a glimpse of what was being discussed in the Kremlin on developments in Syria, as well as Iraq. His prognostication about the growth of the Islamic militant groups has been on the mark to the extent that the ISIS threat has not reached the shore of the US or Europe. Yet, few in the US focused on Putin’s important comments on Islamic militant groups. His questionable discussion of other issues distracted US readers from anything constructive he had to state.

The Way Forward

In his op-ed, Putin does not suggest any real steps that would help create possibilities for international cooperation or greater peace and security.   Indeed, it was not constructed to improve things. Putin essay better served to stir mistrust worldwide toward US efforts in foreign affairs. It would be disingenuous for the Obama administration to deny that its approach to Putin, prior to the op-ed, played a likely role in his decision to write it. Put basely, the Obama administration officials and advisers treated Putin as if he was “their ball to play with.” They lashed out at Putin in a very public way on many occasions, and Putin saw the op-ed as a means to respond to those incidents “publicly.” Unfortunately, rather than use the op-ed to discuss his dissatisfaction and concerns about US actions, he prevaricated and made a number of remarks the US public would only find offensive. Once those points were highlighted in the US newsmedia by political pundits and policy analysts, few in the US public would read it or give it thought after “hearing” what was in it. Putin will unlikely write an op-ed again in a US newspaper given his experience with the first. However, it is likely, given the current course of US-Russian relations, Putin’s future communications with the US public will be far less “congenial.”

Book Review: Raymond Batvinis, Hoover’s Secret War Against Axis Spies: FBI Counterespionage During World War II (University Press of Kansas, 2014)

In 2010, US counterintelligence and counterespionage efforts resulted in the take down of 10 Russian “sleeper agents” from the “S” Department of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR). As Raymond Batvinis discusses in Hoover’s Secret War Against Axis Spies, the foundation of present US counterintelligence capabilities was laid 70 years before.

Outstanding spy novels tell exciting tales of spy rings, secret and double agents, surveillance, codes and ciphers, wiretaps, microdots, deception, disinformation, and even use of invisible ink!  That is what a reader would expect from the works of John le Carré, Frederick Forsyth, Robert Ludlum, or Tom Clancy.  In Hoover’s Secret War Against the Axis: FBI Counterespionage During World War II (University Press of Kansas, 2014), Raymond Batvinis recounts equally thrilling stories of international intrigue as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), working alongside other US government elements and allies, sought to overcome Germany’s efforts to disrupt and defeat its war effort in the US before and during the war.  They will transfix the reader to the book’s pages much as the writings of the great spy novelists.  However, unlike the novelists’ works, Batvinis’ accounts are not amusements, but discussions of real cases of a struggle between adversaries filled with lessons on counter-intelligence (spycatching) as well as counterespionage (turning enemy agents against their spymasters).  The stories present the thought provoking, sometimes absurd, and often horrifying realities of spycatching and turning spies into double-agents. The history is not presented as nostalgia, but as a text on a unique aspect of the intelligence war against Germany, and to a lesser extent, Japan, from which valuable lessons can be drawn.  It is not by chance Batvinis’ book would be presented in this fashion.  The work is a product of painstaking, detail oriented research, and the benefit of his experience as a former FBI special agent.

Indeed, during his 25 years as an FBI special agent, Batvinis focused on counterintelligence and counterespionage cases.  His assignments included work out of the Washington Field Office and the FBI Intelligence Division’s Training Unit at FBI Headquaters.  As a Supervisory Special Agent, in the Baltimore Division, Batvinis managed the espionage investigations of Ronald Pelton (a spy for the Soviet Union), John Walker and Michael Walker (spies for the Soviet Union), Thomas Dolce (a spy for South Africa), and Daniel Richardson (caught attempting to spy for the Soviet Union).  After the al-Qaeda attacks of September 11, 2001, Batvinis came out of retirement and returned to the FBI for three years in order to manage a team of former FBI special agents and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) case officers who taught the Basic Counterintelligence Course at the FBI Academy.  With a continued desire to contribute to US national security efforts, Batvinis went on to teach a “Lessons Learned” course for counterintelligence personnel at FBI field offices throughout the US for two years.  Exploiting his doctoral studies in American History, Batvinis has lectured at George Washington University and has written several articles on counterintelligence.  Prior to writing Hoover’s Secret War Against Axis Spies, he published The Origins of FBI Counterintelligence (University Press of Kansas, 2007).

Hoover’s Secret War Against Axis Spies was designed to pick up where The Origins of FBI Counterintelligence finished.  Origins was an in-depth look at the FBI’s development in the 1930s from a small law enforcement organization to a counterespionage service.  The need for change was made stark in 1938 with the bungled handling of the long-running investigation of the Guenther Rumrich espionage ring.  A series of missteps allowed dozens of German agents from Abwehr (German military intelligence) to step out of the US and reach Europe safely.  The Interdepartmental Information Conference in 1939 brought all elements of the burgeoning US intelligence community together for the first time, to discuss creating a structure to handle the espionage threat to the US.  Rather than fight like a sack of wildcats, new linkages were created between the FBI and the US military, and partnerships were established with foreign services such as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police as well as Mexican and British intelligence officials.  The FBI’s General Intelligence Division was established to manage foreign counterintelligence and other intelligence investigations.  In 1940, US President Franklin Roosevelt signed a Presidential order allowing FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover, to begin wiretapping embassies and consulates.  The Rumrich failure, the new initiatives, and FBI’s education in managing the intricate details of counterespionage matters resulted in the surprise arrest of 33 German agents in 1941, effectively breaking the back of German military intelligence in the US.

Although the Special Intelligence Service (SIS) of the FBI (whose evolution and expansion into Europe, Latin America and Africa Batvinis discusses), was already engaged in foreign intelligence in the prewar years, in 1941 Roosevelt created a new foreign intelligence office under a Coordinator of Information (COI).  By the end of the year, COI’s director, William Donovan, managed 600 personnel.  Hoover and Donovan had a mutual dislike of each other that was over nearly 20 years old.  Hoover sensed the COI as an effort by Donovan to supplant SIS, and as both viewed the Oval Office as their turf.  Their poor relationship hampered coordination between their services. In 1942, the COI transformed from a civilian agency to a military intelligence service known as the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor of the Central Intelligence Agency

In extending his discussion beyond The Origins of FBI Counterintelligence , Batvinis relates the story of how William Stephenson of British Security Coordination (BSC), the center of MI6 (British Secret Intelligence Service) operations in the US, ran afoul of Hoover. Hoover railed on Stephenson for what he viewed as BSC’s rumor mongering and mischief.  Without spoiling this amazing segment of the book, it is enough to say MI6 personnel and MI5 (British Security Service) personnel also had a shaky relationship. Hoover skillfully managed to bypass MI6 and its BSC in the US to reach MI5 in London.  As result, the FBI gained access to Ultra, the British code name for its capability to intercept and decipher encoded German communications from the Enigma system.

Batvinis is at his best in Hoover’s Secret War Against Axis Spies in his discussion of the Double Cross System.  Although known historically as a British success during the war, Batvinis explains that achievements through Double Cross were the result of joint Allied efforts.  That includes the handling of the double-agent, Spanish pacifist Juan Pujol—codenamed “Garbo”—who deceived the Germans into believing the Normandy invasion would not occur, and then convinced them that the June 6, 1944 D-Day landings were a mere diversion for a larger invasion soon to come.  Double Cross began to make use of US based turned German agents after the British, with some difficulty, convinced the US there was great value in counterespionage work.  The very persuasive Ewen Montagu, from Bletchley Park, home of the Ultra secret, was brought into the fray to bring Hoover. Hoover and the FBI hoped through counterespionage, further control could be gained over German intelligence activities.

Among the several Double Cross counterespionage cases Batvinis discusses are that of: a flamboyant playboy who was also a central figure in the dispute between Hoover and Stephenson; a world renown French flyer, who had orders to infiltrate the US aircraft industry; and a lecherous Dutchman, who was deemed useless as an agent and whose activities in the US were fabricated for his spymasters while he remained bottled up in London.  Batvinis takes the reader to school, brilliantly teaching about the fundamental nature and “nuts and bolts” of counterintelligence and counterespionage in a manner understandable for both the intelligence and law enforcement professional and the laity right in the midst of his exhilarating storytelling.  To help readers understand the type of enemy the FBI faced, Batvinis explains how Germany acquired the often involuntary service from German expatriates as agents and their very capable and somewhat ingenious handling of them.  In Chapter 11 entitled “The Count from New York,” Batvinis discusses the case of Wilhelm Rautter, a scion of German aristocracy, who was recruited into the German military intelligence without choice, and tacit threat to his well-being and that of his family and property.  As Batvinis magnificently recounts, Rautter, searching for employment, was invited to interview at Remy and Company, by its owner Hans Blum. After a month at the company, during which he established a very cordial relationship with the owner, Rautter was abruptly interrupted in the midst of perfunctory business chatter when Blum said, “German military intelligence had investigated him, found him acceptable, and wished to use him for collecting information in the United States.”  Blum downplayed the request in a friendly, soft-spoken and reassuring, but subtly betraying a sinister, threatening tone indicating that he would not accept “no” for an answer.

Almost immediately, Rautter began training at Blum’s company’s in secret writing, radio construction, transmitting, receiving, coding, and decoding cabled messages using a standard work of fiction.  He was directed to recruit an experienced operator to handle transmissions once he reached New York City.  Rautter was given the address of a mail drop on Manhattan’s Upper Westside, and rented an apartment in Brooklyn near the famous Brooklyn Navy Yard. He was provided a contact, Heinrich Stuhl, whose home, also in Brooklyn, offered easy observation of Brooklyn and Manhattan piers where merchant ships routinely lined up to load cargo bound for Great Britain.  Rautter was given a catalogue of requirements to monitor shipping bound for Europe by riding the Brooklyn-Staten Island ferry.  He would use Blum’s business contacts to travel throughout the East coast of the US, to observe factory facilities of US Steel, Remington Arms Corporation, and twelve leading aircraft companies such as the Douglas and Boeing companies.  He also was directed to pick up intelligence in local bars and restaurants about troop strength, unit designations, military equipment, and specifics on armament production.  To evade capture, Rautter would vary the means of communication with Germany.  The unexpected collapse of the FBI’s capability to intercept radio transmissions also managed to temporarily thwart its counterintelligence effort.  Nevertheless, in 1944, Rautter was identified and waylaid by the US government as the outcome of some incredible investigative work by the FBI, along with the US Customs Service, comparing German handwriting samples with tens of thousands of baggage declarations of travelers going to Europe and British censors on Bermuda, sifting through mail to Europe.

To understand how the FBI handlers engaged in counterespionage operations against Germany, Batvinis illustrated how they concerned themselves with things that the average person might very well assume was minutiae or too esoteric, to matter.  Among the tactics, techniques, and procedures used, the FBI would first closely watch a German agent to determine his susceptibility for neutralization and recruitment before intercepting him.  Particular attention would be placed on his movements and behavior patterns.  The target’s mail and cable traffic would be copied and read, his contacts were identified, and his accommodations would be searched.  Once the turned agent was activated by the FBI, his reports to Germany were designed to match his trained capabilities and the degree of the agent’s access to information.  For example, if stationed in New York City, an agent from the marine branch of German intelligence would be expected to easily identify all types of Allied ships from specific combat vessels to cargo ships and tankers entering and departing the port.  Allowing a turned agent to remain positioned near a port or shipyard might require the FBI to sacrifice too much vital information about US activities, to legitimize his efforts, in exchange for a tentative counterintelligence reward. Moreover, the US Navy would never clear information on the departure of such convoys, and it would be difficult for a double-agent to explain the failure to collect such information to his intelligence principals in Germany.  The counterespionage agent would need to be placed in a plausible new post, such as Washington, which would allow for a mixture of valuable information, rumors, and other pieces of information picked up from soldiers and sailors in local bars and from senior military and military officials on the Washington cocktail party circuit.  A persona had to be established for counterespionage agents that would typically present them as being fiercely loyal and well-placed, making the most of access to important military secrets, but greatly concerned about being discovered by the FBI.  In one case, a counterespionage agent’s persona was spiced up with emphasis on his struggle with communications equipment and transmission problems, coupled with encoding and decoding errors.  When transmitting messages for a turned German agent, a painstaking effort would be put into mimicking his distinctive transmission style through the study of recordings.

In Chapter 13, entitled, “Peasant,” Batvinis explains that one case, to copy the style of a very inexperienced radio operator, his FBI substitute filled his messages with errors common to amateurs.  Further, by using his left hand, with the radio key placed on the edge of a table so that the hand and arm had no support, the technician found that he could easily produce scores of unintentional and intentional errors.  The FBI categorized messages from counterespionage agents to Germany as “A” or “B.” “A” messages held a blend of accurate and fabricated information, created by Joint Security Control (JSC) of the Military Intelligence Division, established in 1941.  JSC had a central deception staff to its portfolio of both the Army and the Navy to plan measures for disguising or concealing an operation against the enemy that would encourage enemy action on a belief that something true was actually false. “B” messages, developed by FBI special agents of the Washington Field Office from open sources were sent in the form of suggested messages with the actual source of information actually identified.  All “A” and “B” messages were first discussed with translators of the FBI’s Cryptanalytic Section, which helped assure that German intelligence service radio operators made no mistake in deciphering the information.  The reader will find many more comparable lessons in Batvinis’ book.

There is some discussion of FBI efforts against Japan.  One segment concerns German efforts to gather and transmit important information on B-29 bomber manufacturing, other war production relevant to the Pacific Theater of Operations, the increase in conscription in the US in 1945, and war plans.  The extent to which the FBI tried put Double Cross measures in play against the Japanese is discussed in Chapter 12 entitled “Japs, Aspirin, and Pep.”  Although Batvinis relays how the FBI had little success in positioning double agents among Japanese targets, he also uses this aspect of the history of US counterintelligence and counterespionage in World War II to explain how best to manage an effort when “That dog don’t hunt.”

Organizing the US counterintelligence effort was not based on a vain desire by the FBI to take on a new capability on top of its well-known criminal investigation work.  There was no other service fully engaged in counterintelligence work, and as the war drew close to the US, it became an absolute necessity.  There was no guarantee of success. The German intelligence service, and the various departments of German military intelligence were up and running full speed with well-trained and very capable agents spreading out worldwide.  Nevertheless, it was anticipated that through the right organization, appropriate preparation, and diligent work, as well as engagement with allies, the effort would be effective and possibilities for success would increase.  The FBI learned quickly that the fight against Germany was not taking place in some “war over yonder” but already underway in US.  Despite the difficulties the FBI had with the OSS, and its counterparts in Britain, those obstacles were overcome, and it was able to protect the US public and US interests from harm.

There is a breath-taking amount of amazing information on counterintelligence and counterespionage to learn from Hoover’s Secret War Against Axis Spies.  There is also much to that can be learned from the history it provides on US relations with Great Britain and other nations on national security issues. Batvinis’ book is also a real page turner, and one that will be difficult to pull away from.  Without reservations, greatcharlie.com provides its highest recommendation to Hoover’s Secret War Against Axis Spies to its readers. They are guaranteed to read at it over and over again.  Given the timeless value of its information, for some practicioners, it may even serve as a reference.  It is a book everyone will appreciate.

By Mark Edmond Clark

Russia Calls on US Military Tech to Counter Roadside Bombs at Olympics; An Act of Vigilance or Effort to Exploit? Go Figure?

Russian President Vladimir Putin sits near Sochi with good company, Russian Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev, and good tea.  Russians expect to host and enjoy the Olympic Games, violence free.  Fear mongering has been left to foreign critics.

In a February 3, 2014 USA Today article entitled, “Russian FSB Has Poor Record against Terrorists,” journalist Masha Charnay discusses the view expressed by many US security experts that the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), which has the lead role in security for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, has a poor track record in Russia’s fight against home-grown terrorists.  For those who have dealt with the FSB, the notion that it could be considered ineffective in its security efforts would be debatable.  However, in the article, Charnay cites sources such as a study by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism of the University of Maryland, which asserts the frequency of terrorist attacks in Russia has been steadily increasing over the past two decades.  The National Consortium study also explains that most of the attacks have happened in Chechnya, Dagestan, and Ingushetia federal republics, all of which have a significant presence of Islamic militants and are in the same region as Sochi.  The article’s author also spoke to Andrew Kuchins, the director of the Russian and Eurasian Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC.  Kuchins was quoted as saying about the Islamic militants, “They’re Muslim jihadists, taking a page from Al-Qaeda.”   Kuchins’ comment, however, veils the reality that attacks from Islamic militants in Russia have been suicide attacks.  An attacker who is determined to self-destruct in an effort to destroy others is perhaps the most difficult to defend against.  Albeit, any individual within a society determined for whatever reason to commit suicide is very likely to succeed, unless you have prior knowledge of the attempt and the act can be pre-empted.  Proactively, security services might economically deploy personnel to prevent certain sites from being used for such purposes, particullarly by terrrosts, but unless the resources exist, no security force can truly be everywhere at once.

The reports and theories of US experts on the capability of the Russian security services to protect Sochi from terrorism cited in the USA Today article added to the voices of US officials who have been highly critical of security measures taken by the Russians for the Olympic Games and the level of cooperation from Russian security service officials with their counterparts from US security organizations such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, and the Diplomatic Security Service.  That criticism intensified one month before the Games after two December terrorist bombings occurred in Volgograd, 690 km northeast of Sochi, that killed 34 civilians and injured many others, and after Russian authorities made it known that they aware of credible threats posed to the Games by Islamic militants, including the presence of “black widow” suicide bombers in the vicinity of Sochi.

For their part, the Russians have displayed great patience in the face of nearly endless criticisms leveled against the Games’ organizers.  Russian President Vladimir Putin and other authorities have confidence in the preparations made and capabilities of their security services to keep Sochi safe and secure.  As scheduled, Putin made his final review of preparations for Sochi by the first week of January.  It occurred just as the blitz of criticism from US officials began, very effectively creating concerns worldwide that the Games in Sochi were not safe to visit.  From the Russians’ perspective, everything that could be done had been done.  It seemed unlikely that the Russians would react to any events or criticism to the extent that it would divert them from their planned approach to the Games.  US officials and experts appeared to have incited the Russians, not to change their plans for Sochi, but on security matters beyond the Games.  By accepting the US offer for help, the Russians placed themselves in a position to potentially acquire the benefits of billions of dollars of US defense research in a secret weapons system and enhance Russia’s military capabilities without any expenditure of their own financial resources.  Those financial resources have been made more limited in Russia now as a result of its huge investment in the Games.  In response to the US offer to help, the Russians requested anti-improvised explosive device (IED) technology.  However it was not made to US political officials, who might have rushed to provide the system to the Russians perhaps to prove a point or out of political expedience.  The request was made to the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who dealt effectively with the matter.

The US Offer of “Full Assistance” to Russia

According to a January 21, 2014 Moscow Times article, the Russian request for anti-IED technology came on January 21, 2014, when the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, met in Brussels with his Russian counterpart, Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, General Valery Gerasimov.  During their meeting, in the name of supporting Russian efforts to create a safe and secure Olympics, Dempsey made a nearly open-ended offer to Gerasimov to provide “full assistance” from the US military.  It is difficult to know whether there was some discussion that Dempsey would make this generous offer to help during any advance meetings between US and Russian military officials before the meeting of their chiefs.  If that was the case, all of the security services in Russia most likely would have come together to discuss what exactly should be requested from the US in response to its offer.  When the “green light” was given to respond favorably to the US offer, it most likely initiated a type of feeding frenzy among them.  Undoubtedly, FSB as well as the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, the Main Intelligence Directorate from the armed forces (GRU), and even the Ministry of the Interior likely had intelligence requirements (specific information) that they were determined to collect from the US.    

Some requests considered by the Russian security services may have been as simple as asking the US to cover the costs for the deployment of greater numbers of Russian security men in and around Sochi.  The Russians could have asked the US to provide all of the data the US has compiled on the activities of Islamic militants operating at home and abroad that the Russians may not possess.  Questionable requests may have been considered, such as obtaining the latest surveillance and encryption deciphering technology from the National Security Agency that would prevent Islamic militants from planning beyond the Russian authorities’ ability to monitor them and to increase the Russian security service capability to monitor workers and visitors in and around Sochi to better defend against attack.  Unreasonable requests might have included obtaining the names and locations of US intelligence officers and their Russian agents.  By providing that information, the Russian security services presumably would have released security officers from counter-intelligence activities against the US and allow them to be redeployed for protective security and intelligence gathering duties in Sochi.  However, that request, as absurd as it may seem, would likely have been be off-putting enough to the US officials that it would have dissuaded them from continuing to offer assistance or offer to cooperate with the Russians on Sochi.

The Response to Gerasimov’s Request

The eventual request for anti-IED technology was plausible to the extent that Islamic militants could have used roadside bombs against Russian government or civilian vehicle at the Games.  The funny thing is that Russian Islamic militants are more likely to carry out a martyrdom operation (suicide attack) than plant a roadside bomb and detonate it by remote control or cellphone.  (It could very well be that Islamic militants from outside Russia who might use IEDs are considered a threat to the Games.)  If the request was an attempt to exploit US concerns and generosity, that all stopped with Dempsey.  Dempsey was unfazed by Gerasimov’s request, and by his actions proved he has great situational awareness not only on the battlefield but also during diplomatic talks.  He knows very well that it took considerable effort and expense to the US military to develop and acquire the anti-IED technology to protect troops on patrol in Iraq and Afghanistan.  He fully understands the implications of just giving it away.  However, Dempsey was respectful of the Russians’ request.  He understood that it was after all the job of the Russian security services to seek advantages over potential adversaries, and an effort by the Russians to exploit the thinking among US political officials was predictable.  Regarding the entreaty for anti-IED technology by the Russians, Dempsey told the Armed Forces Press Service , “We would favorably consider requests from them.”  However, he also pointed out the likelihood of compatibility problems between US anti-IED technology and Russian equipment, something it seems the Russian security services or Gerasimov did not fully appreciate. 

 US anti-IED technology, according to a January 21, 2014 New York Times article, was designed to detect and disrupt cellphone or radio signals used by militants to detonate improvised explosives from a distance.  However, it also could muddle electronic signals, creating a situation where competing and overlapping systems cancelled out the effectiveness of other systems in use at the same time and in the same area.  As Dempsey explained, “If you are not careful, you can actually degrade capability, not enhance it.”  For that reason, Dempsey insisted on having US and Russian technical experts make certain that the US systems could be integrated into the communications networks and security systems being set in place by Russia.

After mitigating its negative connotations, Dempsey used the opportunity of the Russian request for anti-IED technology to emphasize the importance of military-to-military contacts between the US and Russia.  He emphasized the value of having the military chiefs even when at some points there are disagreements, whether political or diplomatic, that could prevent the “forward movement” in other parts of the relationship.  (See greatcharlie.com August 17, 2013 post entitled, “Ties Fraying, Obama Drops Putin Meeting; Cui Bono?”

 Assessment

This is greatcharlie.com’s last commentary on the 2014 Winter Olympic Games at Sochi.  Instead of sparking discussion about sports, the name Sochi, itself, has been politicized.  It is associated with criticisms from US officials over the inability of Putin and Russian authorities to meet the standards proffered for security.  However, in the final analysis, the Russians have done whatever possible to pre-empt and stop any violence at the Games.  The repeated proffering of predictions that an attack will occur and the complaints about what has been put in place to halt terrorism smacks more of fear mongering than an expression of concern or support.  Putin has achieved his objective, and Sochi is safe and secure.  A good bet for the Games would be that no attacks will occur and everything will go smoothly.  An even better bet is that after the Closing Ceremony on February 24th, those watching far from Sochi, those visiting the Games, and those athletes who are competing in them will be filled with the spirit of the Olympics, and anxiously awaiting the next Winter Olympic Games in four years.

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Obama, Putin Discuss Olympics Security in Call; Putin Has Got It Covered and He Will Keep His Promise to the Terrorists, Too!

Putin is determined to host a “safe and secure” Olympic Games in Sochi.  Russian security officials are using every tool at their disposal, leaving nothing to chance.

According to a January 21, 2014, Reuters article entitled, “Obama, Putin Discuss Olympics Security in Call,” US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin talked over the telephone about how best to have a “safe and secure” 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, as well as efforts to contain the Iranian nuclear program and the situation in Syria.  The article was based on a White House statement that gave few details about the telephone call.  However, in presenting the state of mind in Washington regarding  the Games, the Reuters article emphasized how US military and intelligence officials were spending a lot of time considering how the US could evacuate US citizens from the Sochi in case of a crisis.  It mentioned that the US State Department has issued a warning to US citizens planning to attend the Games, insisting that they remain vigilant about their security due to potential terrorist attacks.  Ostensibly, due to the threat of terrorism, Us officials are clearly view Sochi more in terms as a potential tragedy than as a premier sporting event. 

The threat to the Games that has caused US officials to express considerable concern in the media is an Islamic insurgency just over the Caucasus Mountains.  The insurgency, organized into a loose alliance of rebel groups known as Imarat Kavkaz (Caucasus Emirate), has been simmering more than a decade after it drove separatists from power in the North Caucasus province of Chechnya during Putin’s first term.  They seek to carve an Islamic state out known as the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria from a swath of southern Russia that includes Sochi.  In a video posted online in July, their Chechen-born leader, Doku Umarov, called for “maximum force” to prevent Russia from staging the Sochi Games.  The Associated Press reported in a January 19, 2014 article that the Islamic militant group Vilayat Dagestan claimed responsibility for two terrorist attacks in Volgograd in December 2013.  The attacks in Volgograd came on top of a number of other terrorist enumerated by the Russian law enforcement officials in the North Caucasus Federal District and the Southern Federal District.  Volgograd was also targeted in October 2013 when a suspected female suicide bomber killed six people on a bus.  Fearing a similar martyrdom operation, police in Sochi very recently have handed out fliers at area hotels warning of another woman they believe could be a terrorist and who may currently be in the city.  The flier asks workers to be on the lookout for Ruzanna “Salima” Ibragimova, described as the widow of a member of a militant group from the Caucasus region.  The woman, according to the flier, may be involved in organizing “a terrorist act within the 2014 Olympic region.”   Photos of Ibragimova have flooded television and social media reports from Sochi. She is being called a “black widow,” which are female terrorists from Chechen separatist groups.  Many are wives of insurgents killed by Russian government forces.  The black widows have reportedly carried out a number of high profile suicide bombings.

US officials have been critical of the reaction of Russian authorities to the recent violence.  They claim that measures being taken may not be sufficient.  On ABCNews “This Week” in January 19, 2013, Congressman Michael McCaul, Republican of Texas and the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, expressed concern about the preparations in Sochi, though he said he believed that “President Putin is taking this very seriously” and “taking all the precautions.”  In light of the recent deadly bombings by regional terrorist groups and the threats of additional attacks, McCaul said he thought that it was likely that attacks would occur somewhere in Russia during the Games.  McCaul stated that he would travel to Sochi to confer with security officials, in part to study their plans for evacuations in the event of an attack.  Congressman Mike Rogers, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said on the same Sunday program that US officials working with the Russians ahead of the Games had “found a departure of cooperation that is very concerning.”  Rogers, in a rebuff to Putin, stated with an estimated 15,000 US citizens planning to travel to Sochi for the Games, Russian security services should provide their “full cooperation.” 

As efforts to complete construction in Sochi before the Opening Ceremony on February 7th      continue, comments by US officials have built-up concern globally on whether the Olympic Games will be safe enough to participate in and visit.  Putin and Russian security officials likely have their own views on why US officials are adamant that attack will occur and Russia is not prepared, but they do not appear distracted by US criticism.  Russia is implementing a security plan formulated months before the Games and integrated into the overall approach to Russia’s security.  Russia has not been simply reacting to events.  Coordination with other nations may not be ideal, but circumstances beyond Sochi perhaps best account for that.  The threat of terrorism has become a concern in the planning of every major sporting event.  In the US, the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta were disrupted when two visitors were killed by a bomb set by a domestic terrorist.  Counter-terrorism has been a key aspect of Russia’s national security policy for many years.  Russian counter-terrorism and anti-terrorism efforts to defeat any terrorist threats directed at Sochi appear very sound; nothing appears to have been left to chance.  In a January 19, 2014 press conference, Putin explained: “The job of the Olympics host is to ensure security of the participants in the Olympics and visitors.  We will do whatever it takes.”  Through it all, Putin also intends to keep the promise made to Russia in his New Year address in which he stated: “We will strongly and decisively continue the battle against terrorists until their total annihilation.”  After the Olympics, it may be demonstrated that his considerable investment of resources to Sochi’s security greatly enhanced his ability to achieve that goal.

Defeating the Islamic Militant Threat to the Games

To guarantee for the Russian people that the Games will be a proud occasion, Putin has had his government put in place what officials and experts described as the most intensive security apparatus in the history of the event.  Russian law enforcement and other security services have promised to surround Sochi with a “ring of steel.”  According to Mark Galeotti of NYU’s Center for Global Affairs, an expert on Russian security services, the security presence in Sochi was twice as large as that used during the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, even though London’s population is more than 20 times that of Sochi.   As of this month, there have been reports that among the measures being taken for the Games, more than 5,500 video cameras will be in operation as part of the “Safe Sochi” policy. Of those, 309 will be manned by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB).  The FSB has also had an outlay for their Plastun scout robots.  The devices are heavy with surveillance equipment: thermal imaging, cameras and devices that can detect a sniper’s scope.  Drones will be deployed, including the FSB’s Gorisont-Air S100, which can be easily weaponized.   The MVD has 421 Zala drones available.  The System of Operative Investigative Measures system (SORM) will be used to monitor spectators and athletes alike.  SORM-1 captures telephone and mobile phone telecommunications; SORM-2 intercepts Internet traffic; SORM-3 gathers information from all forms of communication and has a storage facility. FSB has control centers connected directly to operators’ computer servers.  To monitor particular phone conversations or Internet communications, an FSB agent only has to enter a command into the control center located  in the local FSB headquarters.  This system is allegedly duplicated across Russia.  In every Russian town, protected underground cables exist that connect the local FSB bureau with all Internet Service Providers and telecom providers in the region.  Electronic systems with far greater capabilities, concealed from the public, may also have been deployed to protect Sochi.  

Those technical capabilities are only part of preparations.  More than 50,000 security men will be on duty.  Most likely some of them will be in plain clothes, mingling with visitors.  There will likely be a greater security presence around certain teams and venues.  The regular forces have been augmented by a large deployment of Cossacks, the traditional horseback warriors who once patrolled Russia’s frontier, serving more recently in a public safety role in southern Russia. Several hundred have moved into the Olympic Village, joining the police on foot patrols and at checkpoints in their traditional uniforms.  Zones for population control will be established where bags, personal belongings, movements and credentials will be checked.  All visitors will need a Spectator Pass which they will acquire upon registering in Sochi. 

The response to the Volgograd attacks was part of the overall effort at securing the games. Immediately after those attacks, 4,000 policemen were dispatched to Volgograd, placing over 5,200 on the ground for what Russian authorities called an “Anti-Terrorism Whirlwind, ”  It was a display of what resources could be called upon and methods that could be used.  Russian MVD and FSB troops surround the homes of suspected militants and pull them out for arrest.  Further, security services have taken the step of striking with special service units swiftly and covertly against suspected terrorist groups, “likely being monitored,” before the opening ceremonies or during Sochi.  Strikes by special service units of the MVD and FSB, and perhaps the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), appear to be creating confusion and chaos within the leadership of the Islamic militant groups, leaving the groups rudderless and unable to resurrect themselves enough to direct any operations during the Olympic Games.  Raids against the leadership of Imarat Kavkaz reportedly resulted in the killing of Doku Umarov, the leader of the so-called Caucasus Emirate, who called for “maximum force” to prevent Russia from staging the Sochi Games.  Ramzan Kadyrov, the top Russian official in the Chechen Republic reported the information about Umarov’s death came from intercepted communications between other rebel leaders who were concentrated on finding his replacement.  The Interfax news agency quoted an unidentified source in Russian security agencies as saying they “can’t confirm Umarov’s death.”  However, additional messages posted on Chechen militant blog sites also suggested Umarov was killed in an operation by Russian special services troops.  (See greatcharlie.com on January 8, 2014 post entitled “Putin Vows to Annihilate the Terrorists, But Until the Winter Olympics Are Over, Other Steps Must Suffice.”)

Regarding Concerns About Cooperation

Security officials of the US, EU, and other countries may want to assist the Russians beyond liaising with officials, to include providing personnel and technical resources.  A contingent of Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) special agents and State Department security officials will be in Sochi to attend to the security of the American contingent.  Yet, there was never real hope or that there would be significant cooperation between Russia and other countries on Sochi .  The Russian security services have never been known for their transparency.  Nearly everything they do is kept confidential and compartmentalized within the services as well.  In an unusual move, in 2013, the FSB announced it was monitoring the movements of Russian nationals traveling to Syria.  Other monitoring activities of the Russian security services were evinced when it was revealed by the Boston Globe that the Russians had warned the FBI about Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the older of the two ethnic Chechen brothers responsible for the terror bombing of the 2013 Boston Marathon, two years before the attack.  In the interview presented on the ABCNews Sunday morning program, “This Week” on January 19th, Putin, responding in part to concerns made by US officials over security preparations, explained if foreign athletes wanted to provide their own additional security, “there is nothing wrong with that,” as long as they coordinated with the Russian authorities. 

Yet, it is somewhat disingenuous for US officials to discuss coordination between the US and Russian intelligence and law enforcement services, even for the Olympic Games, without recognizing the problems that exist in the relationship.  There have been public displays of coordination on the Syrian chemical weapons removal, Geneva II talks between the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian opposition coalition, the Iran nuclear talks.  However, the relationship is best marked by: disagreement on the reduction of nuclear force levels; Putin’s decision to allow National Securty Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden to reside in Russia; Putin’s “thought provoking” letter to the US public, published in the New York Times Op-Ed section; ongoing espionage efforts between Russia and the US, including the activities of SVR officer Anna Chapman and other Russian “illegals” captured by the FBI in 2010, and the allegations of US spying on Russia revealed by Snowden and Wikileaks; and, most of all, the uncongenial personal relationship between Putin and Obama, resulting in the cancellation of last summer’s summit.  Further, there has always been a certain degree of mutual distrust between the US and Russian intelligence services, stemming from their Cold War rivalry and balanced through a modus vivendi in the field.  Sharing between organizations took a turn for the better after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, but then fell back into difficulty.

Threats to the US homeland were the cause for coordination between Russia and US services after September 11, 2001, but the security for the Sochi Games involves the protection of the Russian homeland.  For the Russians, it is a matter of national interest and national pride.  The Russians feel they have the best handle on the situation in the South Caucasus. Their understanding comes from years of hands on experience with the Islamic militant groups, uncovering complex networks of associated groups. They have created their own networks across their entire country, The Russians likely feel the understanding US or other nations’ security officials have on the security situation there is based on the abstract, gleaned from reports and studies.  Bringing US security officials to an situational awareness equal to that of Russian officials, who understand Islamic militant groups in the region from the inside, would require the use of more resources and precious time.  Efforts to support the Russians using technical means may exist, but it is likely some it duplicates Russian efforts already ongoing with the use of their own tools.   

More importantly, MVD and FSB authorities are very likely concerned that with so many, if not all, of their premium security assets being employed to protect the Games, US specal agents and case officers would be provided a unique opportunity to observe and collect data on the capabilities and effectiveness of the Russian security services.  Defeating that possibility would mean covering the US security presence in or around any secure facilities with counterintelligence resources that are needed for the Sochi anti-terrorism effort. 

Russian authorities may sense that US officials expressing their concerns over security for the Games may be projecting the fears and anxieties raised during their own efforts to protect the US homeland from attacks in the post-September 11th environment.  While Russian officials may not know or be able to intimate if or when an attack might be attempted at Sochi, they are neither uncertain, nor insecure about their ability to defeat anything that falls within their radar.  That is the best they can hope for.  From a more cynical Russian perspective, US concerns over security for the Games, especially among political officials, is that 2014 is an election year for the US Congress, and expressing concern over the Games servs to demonstrate a candidate’s willingness to protect US citizens and interests overseas.  Additionally, the Russians security officials may feel the attempt is being made to goad them into exposing their security tactics, techniques, and procedures as a result of comments by US officials or pundits regarding Russian capabilities.

“Annihilating the Terrorists”

Perhaps Putin could have attempted to eliminate the problem of terrorism from Islamic militant groups altogether by committing his security forces to large-scale operations a year or more before the Games.  Contrary to statements made by US officials, all along, the Russians have been very sensitive to the fact that any large-scale, federal district wide, counter-terrorism operations weeks before the Games could have possibly spoil the spirit of the Olympics, and create the impression that Sochi is not safe to visit. 

At the end of the Games, however, it is very likely that elevated use of sophisticated technical means to monitor the movements and activities of individuals and groups will leave the Russian government with the best understanding ever of regional Islamic terrorist groups.  It is possible that so much quality information will have been gathered and the security services situational awareness will be so enhanced that new, more effective operations against terrorist groups could be conducted by MVD, FSB, and possibly SVR special service groups.  (Note: These units and their capabilities are discussed in the January 8, 2014 greatcharlie.com post.)  Those operations might result in a decisive victory over the terrorist.  The operations of the`special sevice groups could be augmented by the use of regular military ground and air assets.  Their firepower could be directed to have a multiplier effect in the field.

Retired US General Stanley McChrystal, former commander of the US Joint Special Operations Command, has offered hints on how to exploit situational awareness at a level which the Russians may have acquired while securing the Games.  When striking at a terrorist group’s network, the goal is to paralyze its nervous system.  Hitting it intermittently, or every other night, allow the opponent to become stronger, having become accustomed to resurrecting itself.  However, McChrystal indicated that if you strike at enough targets simultaneously, taking down key leaders, the group will be thrown into chaos and confusion and have a difficult time “regenerating.”  That will allow for decisive effects. 

Units also can be better utilized as a result of excellent situational awareness.  McChrystal explained: “Traditionally, if we did a raid and we thought we were going to need 20 commandos, to actually be on the target, we might take 120, because we had to put security around the site to protect it from enemy reinforcements, and we might have to put a support section and a command and control section there because you need all those things to account for the unexpected.  But when you have very good situational awareness and good communications, you only send the 20, because your security comes from being able to see, and then you can maneuver forces if you need them.  So suddenly, the 120 commandos aren’t doing one raid; their doing six raids, simultaneously, and you start to get the ability to do 300 raids a month.”

To speed the process and achieve a high level of success, the Russians could adapt a form of “find, fix, finish, exploit, and analyze” (F3EA) developed by McChrystal.  Under the concept, security forces would understand who or what is a target, locate it, capture or kill it, take what intelligence one can from people and documents, analyze that, then go back out execute the same cycle again.  If Russian security forces would be able to act at a speed as fast as US special operators in Iraq under McChrystal ‘s command, decision-making would need to be de-centralized because of the high number of raids.  Subordinate elements must be allowed to operate quickly.  (See much more on McChrystal’s concepts in General Stanley McChrystal, My Share of the Task A Memoir Portfolio, 2013)

Not to advise Imarat Kavkaz or Islamic militant groups in the Caucasus, but if they have a goal to create an Islamic state in Russia, nothing would do more to ensure that hope will never be realized than attacking the Games.  An attack would be an international tragedy, a violation of the Russian people, and a personal affront to Putin.  Along with international outrage and condemnation, Russian authorities would most likely implement the most ferocious plans formulated as a response.  Assuredly, there would be endless capture and kill raids, and decisive military attacks against any strongholds established.  It is somewhat likely that Putin, outraged, would also consider the physical displacement of specific parts of the community from which the militant groups emanate and situating them in a various secure areas in different parts of Russia until such time the threat of terrorism posed to the Russian people could be sorted out.  Other nations and human rights groups might complain, but there would be little they could do to stop it.

Assessment

There is the possibility that concerns over security for the Olympic Games will be quelled only after it closes on February 27th without any incidents of violence.  Interestingly, Islamic militant groups posed a threat to the Russian government long before the Games were scheduled.  There may be legitimate concern behind much of the criticism.  However, there may very well be a political purpose behind the timing of some of it.    Perhaps the benefit of the generous investment of security resources on Sochi might be the creation of opportunities for Russian security officials to establish enduring security in the Caucasus.  Those groups that may seek to disrupt or halt the Games through terrorism might want to consider that the Games reach a level of national and historical importance and psychic benefit for the Russian people that Putin’s response would be unprecedented.  The purpose of any militant group cannot be served by eliciting Putin’s wrath.  Sochi is the wrong place and the wrong time for the militant groups to act.  Hopefully, from February 7th to February 23rd, peace, unity, and good sportsmanship will be the only things concerning the world at the Games.

Putin Vows to Annihilate Terrorists, But Until the Winter Olympics Are Over, Other Steps Must Suffice

For Russian President Vladimir Putin, the 2014 Winter Olympics Games in Sochi will provide an excellent opportunity to showcase his resurgent Russia in the best light possible.  However, much has happened to prevent that goal from being achieved. Within Russia, concerns have mounted over the cost for hosting the Olympic Games, with some estimates stating it has surpassed $50 billion.  Outside of Russia, there has been a significant, negative reaction to Putin signing a law in June 2013, banning “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations” and imposing fines on those holding gay pride rallies.   Several world leaders have responded by declining to attend the Games, including US President Barack Obama, whose relationship with Putin remains less than congenial.  However, both in Russia and worldwide, all with interest in the Games, are concerned with security at the event given the most recent terrorist attacks in Volgograd, some 690 km northeast of the Sochi Olympic Park.  Of all of the issues that have arose, Putin has been most responsive to the attacks.  In his televised New Year address, Putin stated, “We will confidently, fiercely and consistently continue the fight against terrorists until their complete annihilation.”  For the Russian people, any statement less forceful than that from Putin would have been unexpected and unacceptable.  There is an issue, however, over the degree to which Putin will actually retaliate for the attacks.  Moreover, it is uncertain that any action against the terrorist group allegedly responsible will prevent new attacks before or during the Games.  Perhaps a key factor in the organization of a significant response by the Russian government is timing.

There were two terrorist attacks in Volgograd in December 2013.  On December 29th, a suicide bomber detonated explosives inside a crowded railway station, killing at least 17 and wounding many others.  On December 30th, another bomber detonated explosives on an electric trolleybus, killing 14 and critically wounding several more.  An Investigative Committee spokesperson stated identical explosives were used in both bombings, establishing a link between them.  The attacks in Volgograd came on top of a number of other terrorist enumerated by the Russian law enforcement officials in the North Caucasus Federal District and the Southern Federal District.  Volgograd was also targeted in October 2013 when a suspected female suicide bomber killed six people on a bus.  While nobody claimed responsibility for the December attacks either through a message or manifesto to authorities, the violence underscored Russia’s vulnerability to insurgents more than a decade after it drove separatists from power in the North Caucasus province of Chechnya during Putin’s first term.  The insurgents suspected, from the group Imarat Kavkaz (Caucasus Emirate), say they are fighting to carve an Islamic state out known as the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria from a swath of southern Russia that includes Sochi.  In a video posted online in July, the group’s Chechen-born leader, Doku Umarov, called for “maximum force” to prevent Russia from staging the Games.

While the Games will go on as planned and nations will send their teams to compete, the Volgograd attacks have still had a strong effect on the psyche of the Russian people and on Putin himself.  Given the increased sense of patriotism and nationalism found among the Russian people, most are proud of the fact the Games are being held in Russia and are hoping for a successful event.  However, those hopes have been moderated by fears that more attacks will occur before the Games start.  They are relying on Putin’s reputation for being a strong leader and very capable of responding firmly on security issues.  They are relying upon him to guarantee the Games will be a glorious occasion for them.  Putin, himself, is certainly unintimidated by terrorists from Russia or anywhere else.  However, having dedicated a great amount of government resources, especially from the security services, to the Games, and being fully aware of his reputation as a strong leader, for Putin, the attacks were a personal affront.  The attacks appear to discredit his effort to prove Russia is on the rise again and suffering the fate of lesser states.  For that, he will be unforgiving.  With the leaders of other world powers absent, at Sochi, Putin would have the spotlight to himself on the world stage.   What a tragic figure Putin would be, if he had to stand alone at the Olympic Park, explaining a devastating terrorist attack.

Under the circumstances, Putin must thoroughly respond to the attacks.  To some degree, the security services have acted.  When cars, stores, homes, and marketplaces are bombed, Russian Interior Ministry (MVD) and Federal Security Service (FSB) troops surround the homes of suspected militants and pull them out for arrest.  It has been said that those troops have bombed homes when relatives have refused to turn suspects over.  After the Volgograd attacks, 4000 policemen were dispatched to Volgograd, placing over 5,200 on the ground for what Russian authorities called an “Anti-Terrorism Whirlwind.”  Over 1,500 buildings were searched and more than 1,000 people were searched.  Several dozen have been detained for resisting arrests for not having documents allowing them to carry weapons.  The internal troops (VV) of the Ministry of Interior have already been heavily engaged in operations in North Caucasus.  Those VV units that genuinely conduct operations are from the ten Independent Special Designation Brigades (OBrON).  These specialized forces fight local rebels and control protests.  The short-term, specific operations OBrON carry out differentiate the VV forces from the regular army, which is trained and equipped to fight long-term conflicts.  Such services provided by the VV are not without cost.  Whenever people have been arrested and interrogated, policemen are often killed in retaliation.

Putin is dedicated to preventing any further terrorist attacks.  It is uncertain that any response against the group allegedly responsible will prevent future attacks before or during the Games.  The raids undertaken, although significant, were not as robust as might have been expected given the likely desperation and paranoia felt among security service officials over a possible Sochi attack.  However, federal district wide, large scale operations weeks before the Games will mar them, and erase any impression that Sochi is safe to visit.  Putin’s entire investment of Russia’s resources would be wasted.  Moreover, a full-scale attack upon terrorist groups now may lead to a full-scale nihilistic response from them.  That type of conflict, regardless of whether Russian authorities might destroy the terrorist groups in the process, could lead to a drastic decision by the International Olympic Committee to cancel, postpone, or relocate the Games.

It is very likely sophisticated technical means to monitor the movements and activities of individuals and groups, likely to engage in terrorist acts, has been on-going.  Hitting those groups may disrupt those monitoring efforts, by destroying leads before they yield their potential. That would be counter-intuitive.  Losing lines into to those groups now would create major security problems.  (If the attackers in Volgograd were completely off the radar, that likely created a conundrum for Russian security officials.  The attackers operations would have been pre-planned.  They would have been set up to move independently on specific dates, times, and locations without the communication of orders.  To defeat such attacks, anti-terrorism efforts must peak just before the Games begin and remain heightened until they end to defeat lone operatives.)

A better time for the security services to strike against suspected terrorist groups would be just days before the opening ceremonies or during Sochi.  Communications must be destroyed or disrupted.  There must be confusion and chaos within the leadership.  The groups must stand rudderless.  The strikes must be of sufficent strength to prevent the groups from resurrecting themselves enough to conduct any operations during the Games.  Strikes of this nature would likely be executed swiftly and covertly against terrorist elements being monitored.  Very capable special service troops would most likely be called upon to carry out such a task.  Of the many special service groups established in Russia, the most well-known and respected are Directorate “A” of the FSB Special Purpose Center (Alpha Group) and Directorate V of the FSB Special Purpose Center (Vympel).  Alpha Group, an elite stand alone sub unit of Russia’s special services, is a dedicated counter-terrorism task force of the FSB.  It primarily prevents and responds to violent acts in public transportation and buildings.  Vympel is officially tasked with protecting Russia’s strategic installations, however it is also available for extended police duties, paramilitary applications, and covert operations in Russia or abroad.  The profile and capabilities of both units have increased, and they have taken over and consolidated roles and personnel from other organizations.  During the Soviet era, Alpha Group acquired a reputation for using ruthless methods in response to terrorist acts.  In Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God (Georgetown University Press, 2013),  Matthew Levitt recounts different versions of how Soviet authorities used Alpha Group in response to the 1985 kidnappings of four Soviet diplomats in Beirut, Lebanon.  After one of the Soviet hostages was shot and dumped near a stadium in West Beirut, Alpha Group sought the help of Druze informants to identify the kidnappers, their clans, and their families. One account has Alpha Group kidnapping a relative of the hostage taking organization, cutting off his ear, and sending it to his family.  In another account, Alpha Group abducted one of the kidnapper’s brothers and sent two of his fingers home to his family in separate envelopes.  A third version has Alpha Group kidnapping a dozen individuals tied to the kidnapping group, one of them being a relative of its leader. The relative was castrated, shot in head, had his testicles stuffed in his mouth, and shipped to the group with a letter promising a similar fate for the eleven other captives if the Soviet hostages were not released.  That same evening, the three diplomats, in bad condition, appeared at the gates of the Soviet embassy.

There is also the possibility that Russian authorities may utilize their most capable assets in response to the terrorist attacks.  In his book Russian Security and Paramilitary Forces Since 1991 (Osprey, 2013), Mark Galeotti of NYU’s Center for Global Affairs discusses Zaslon (Barrier), a special services group not officially recognized by the Russian government.  Zaslon personnel are said to be former spetsnaz troops and serve under the sole command of Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) headquarters in Yasenevo, on the outskirts of Moscow.  Galeotti explains that Zaslon has been linked with everything from assassinations abroad to gathering up documents and technology that the Russian government did not want the US to seize when Baghdad fell.  In Syria, Galeotti suspects Zaslon may be providing additional support for Russian military and diplomatic personnel, and would likely be ordered to extract people, documents, or technologies Russia would not want to share if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime began to collapse.  As part of Putin’s full court press on security for Sochi, Zaslon has likely already been included among those special services units called in to provide both anti-terrorism and counter-terrorism capabilities.  An outstanding scholar at the University of Utrecht, Ralph Ladestein, shared a picture with greatcharlie.com in November 2013 that, as he explained, showed Russian special service troops in Syria.  The picture is below.

Are these Zaslon troops operating in Syria? The message written on the wall of the structure in the background (translated by Ladestein) reads, “Syria for Assad!”

By the end of the Games, it is possible that so much information will have been gathered as a result of the concentration of security resources to the anti-terrorism effort that new, more effective operations against terrorist groups could simply be conducted by MVD and FSB.  Necessity could lead to the consideration of innovative approaches toward blunting the capabilities of the terrorists perhaps by using precision strikes with military firepower and directed attacks by special service troops.  Some new ideas may come as a result of Russian security officials working closely with foreign security officials from participating states.  After examining the situation in the North Caucasus, those foreign security officials may likely offer suggestions on how lessons from their own experiences in counter-terrorism to could be applied to reduce or defeat any security threats.  Additionally, with the Games over, Putin will have the flexibility to respond to the terrorists on a far larger scale if he chooses

If after the closing ceremonies, Sochi is known for being the Black Sea resort on the edge of the Caucasus Mountain range where the 2014 Winter Olympic Games were superbly organized, the Russian people will be very satisfied.  If after the Games, an impressed world audience has a sense that Russia is a world power on the rise again, with great capabilities and possibilities, Putin would be elated.  However, if a terrorist attack is attempted or successfully carried out in Sochi, for Russia, it will be a disaster.  Russia will be viewed as a questionable choice by the International Olympic Committee for the Games and the country’s reputation for being stifled by authoritarianism, insecurity and uncertainty will endure.

Despite personal or political views of Putin and his decisions regarding the Winter Olympic Games, no one should have any interest in seeing Sochi struck by a terrorist attack.  Anti-terrorism and counter-terrorism by the Russian security services should be supported by all states, including the US.  While security officials of the US, EU, and other countries may liaise and provide some assistance, everything possible should be done to prevent an attack, including the supply of personnel and technical resources.  A secure and successful event would not only be in Russia’s interest, but also the transnational interest.